How to make the most of a mentor

Experienced hands can help younger employees learn the skills needed to navigate a career. However, you must know how, and when, to draw on your mentor's experience to get the most value from the relationship.

mentor and student

A mentor can help a younger federal employee learn the skills needed to navigate a career. (Stock photo)

When Kimberly Hancher became CIO at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, her first challenge was an upcoming move to a new headquarters building. She knew just where to turn for help: her longtime mentor.

"The first 90 days were really, really intense," Hancher said. "There was this big project that my credibility would be based on, staring me right in the face. [My mentor] really helped me through that time."

Hancher's mentor, who led an agency similar in size to EEOC, put her in touch with his CIO, who advised her to build management support for maintaining a computer room on-site in the new building. EEOC's chief financial officer opposed the idea because it would eliminate a planned staff cafeteria.

"I had a significant difference of opinion with a peer and it was very time sensitive and I'm the new kid on the block," Hancher recalled.

She made her case by partnering with executives in other program areas who saw the importance of an on-site data center for avoiding disruptions to systems that 2,000 employees in the field relied on versus the 450 headquarters employees who would have access to the cafeteria at the new site. She also went along with other decisions that she might have challenged because she viewed them as less crucial than the computer room. In the end, the planners agreed to a comfortable lounge rather than a cafeteria, making room for the data center.

"Mentorship is incredibly important at every stage of somebody's career," said Dan Chenok, executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government and former branch chief for information policy and technology at the Office of Management and Budget. "I had mentors when I was a first-year staffer at OMB, and I have mentors now that I'm an executive at IBM."

Mentoring can help individuals better manage their careers and reach their goals, and they can also help managers and organizations retain valuable employees, said Lois Zachary, author of "The Mentor's Guide: Facilitating Effective Learning Relationships." In surveys, 96 percent of executives and 98 percent of millennial employees say mentoring is an important development tool. Moreover, 35 percent of employees who don't receive regular mentoring look for another job within the year, and 62 percent who have received mentoring say they are very likely to stay with their current employer, Zachary said.


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"Mentoring is a great opportunity to develop yourself professionally, to develop yourself as a leader," she said. "Throughout your career, you need multiple mentors at different times."

Finding a mentor

Sometimes, mentor relationships develop naturally through people you meet in the course of your work. But the more targeted and intentional you are in your choice of a mentor, the more you will get out of the relationship.

For instance, it is helpful to have a mentor who is not in your immediate chain of command so that he or she can give objective feedback without also being responsible for managing your performance.

"It's very difficult for a mentee to be open and honest with someone who signs their paycheck or evaluates their performance," Zachary said.

In addition, avoid choosing a friend or someone with a similar style to yours, said Susan Grunin, CEO of Think Strategic Consulting and chairwoman of the American Council for Technology's Human Capital Shared Interest Group. "I've had soul mates and I've had mentors," she said. "People who think differently have insight that you can't get if you just hung around with someone like you."

Furthermore, you should articulate the reasons you are looking for a mentor beyond just "getting ahead." If you want to learn a specific skill, such as managing meetings or improving organizational performance, look for a mentor who excels in the targeted area. Or perhaps you want exposure to someone who has worked at a number of agencies or in a variety of roles within your organization. Also consider practicalities such as whether you would prefer a mentor who is geographically close to you or someone who attended the same college or university.

The questions to ask yourself are, "'What do I want to learn, and what am I looking for in a mentor?'" Zachary said. "Identify some criteria so you don't get swept away by chemistry."

Once you have pinpointed your goals and the qualities you want in a mentor, look around. If you don't see candidates in your immediate work environment, tap your network to see if someone knows an appropriate person. You are more likely to succeed if you have targeted criteria and priorities rather than just saying, "I'm looking for a mentor — who do you know?"

Why be a mentor

There is no doubt that mentors can have a huge impact on a younger employee's career. For instance, if her mentor hadn't called to suggest it, Mary Davie might never have thrown her hat into the ring to become assistant commissioner for Assisted Acquisition Services at the General Services Administration. She is now acting commissioner of GSA's Federal Acquisition Service.

Being an effective mentor is a skill in and of itself. Rather than solve problems outright, you must coach your mentee to find his or her own answers.

"You're not the sage on the stage, but you're the guide on the side," said Lois Zachary, author of "The Mentor's Guide: Facilitating Effective Learning Relationships." "The most important thing you can do is to be there and listen, walk in the mentee's shoes and not make assumptions."

You also need to ask probing questions and challenge the mentee's bad habits or blind spots. "You want to be supportive [and] a bit nurturing but also tell it like it is," said Susan Grunin, CEO of Think Strategic Consulting and chairwoman of the American Council for Technology's Human Capital Shared Interest Group.

As a mentor, you might be surprised to discover that the relationship benefits you as well as the mentee. Besides the altruistic boost of helping someone else, you are likely to become more energized about your own job and learn new things about your industry and organization. Moreover, you will develop key managerial skills that will help you improve your own organization's performance.

"It's not a one-way learning," said Dan Chenok, executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government. "Being a mentor has taught me a tremendous amount over the years. The people I've worked with, who often are younger and have fresher perspectives, have been a great source of ideas."

Mary Davie, acting commissioner of the General Services Administration's Federal Acquisition Service, gravitated to GSA's Mary Whitley early on as a mentor because she admired Whitley's strength as a leader and her ability to command an equal voice at the table.

"I felt I could learn a lot from her in terms of leadership style, in terms of being very clear in communications style, the way that she developed relationships with other people," Davie said. "She took on some tough and sometimes unpopular challenges, and I kind of liked that. It wasn't easy, but the outcomes were great."

Years later, those lessons helped Davie tackle the challenge of becoming assistant commissioner for Assisted Acquisition Services when AAS was being pulled out as its own portfolio. "It was quite a challenging year, but the organization is stronger than ever," she said, noting that AAS went from a $60 million loss position four years ago to being $40 million in the black this year.

Working with a mentor

Once you've identified a mentor candidate, you need to explore whether your personalities fit well and decide how to structure the relationship. Share your past career experiences, your expectations for mentoring and your learning style. Break down your broad goals into specific, targeted steps.

"It's really important to negotiate the relationship," Zachary said. "As a mentee, you need to drive the relationship and you have to be able to ask for what you need."

The mentee should set the agenda, and both parties should agree on ground rules, such as confidentiality, boundaries and expected time commitments. Some people meet with a mentor monthly; others meet quarterly. It depends on the situation and your objectives.

Arrive at all meetings with a clear agenda, and be respectful of the mentor's time. "I'm not saying you can't have some social time if that's something they want," Grunin said. "When you're spending the time talking about you and your career [and] your barriers, you ought to be prepared and get to the point."

As you make career decisions and advance, be sure to let your mentor know how you have implemented his or her advice and what you have learned. Beyond being good manners, it will make the mentor more willing to continue mentoring you.

"Let the person know what you've been up to and how what they've said has helped you," Chenok said. "Demonstrate that you've internalized what you discussed."

Although you might seek a mentor for a particular time-limited challenge, stay in touch with that person even after your goal is met. Over the course of your career, you might have a variety of mentors who serve different roles. All of them are valued and necessary.

"It's important to have not just one person but hopefully several people you trust enough that you're able to talk to in this fashion," Chenok said. "A single mentor isn't the end-all be-all."

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